In age of craft cocktails, a generations-old recipe from the Pennsylvania coal region is still popular

Written by on December 31, 2020

In age of craft cocktails, a generations-old recipe from the Pennsylvania coal region is still popular

By  Haley O’Brien

December 31, 2020

In the age of craft cocktails, there’s a generations-old recipe from Pennsylvania’s coal region that is still popular around the holidays.

Listen to the story.

The drink is called boilo,  also known as the coal miner’s cure. It is shared between family and friends during the holidays. Sean Cantwell, who grew up in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County,  makes it in his kitchen, starting with ginger ale and sliced oranges. 

It tastes, he says, “Like Christmas exploded in your mouth. Citrus, and it’s got the cinnamon, and a little bit of kick, enough to know that hey I better take it easy on this stuff.”

He explains that everyone has their own recipe. Some are closely guarded. Schuylkill County bars usually host boilo competitions this time of year. 

One ingredient all boilo makers insist on is Four Queens whiskey– it’s 101 proof- and they use it because it’s got the most bang for the buck.  Cantwell says that’s what coal miners in the region always valued.

“Those were hard working middle class Americans, well lower middle class Americans back in the day. And they would use cheap whiskey, but it had to be a good, strong whiskey,” he says

Four Queens is made by Laird and Company in New Jersey. Tom Alberico is Vice President of Sales and Marketing. He says almost all of the whiskey’s sales are in Pennsylvania, and mostly in what locals call “the Skook.”

“About 70 percent of those sales are from Schuylkill County and the coal regions, and they come at this time of year. Now we sell the product all year round and it is sold in other areas, but it is totally skewed to boilo,” Alberico says.

He says boilo is the only reason the 101 proof alcohol is still sold, and if liquor stores were closed during the holidays this year due to the pandemic, it might never be available again. 

Back in his kitchen, Cantwell ladles the steaming liquid into a glass. He tinkers with his recipe every year.

“Next time just a little more honey, and a little more cinnamon,” Cantwell says

He is hoping this tradition won’t die off soon.

“That’s what we’ve been doing as a society forever, the people came over from Ireland brought things with them, and added American traditions to that. That’s the beauty of American culture,” he says.

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